1997 Law Shortchanges D.C. Workers on Retirement Front

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, May 14, 2009

Unlike many young people, Kathy Holiday Crawford started planning for retirement early. She had a good job as a probation officer in Maryland, but she took a similar one in the D.C. court system because it offered better pay and benefits.

The chief benefit that attracted her was the ability to retire at age 50, with 20 years of service. "When I approached my 30th birthday, I said now is the time for me to go with the court."

Last week marked her 20th anniversary with the D.C. Superior Court, and she turns 50 next week. But she's not planning any retirement party. In fact, her plans to retire about the same time as her husband and move with him to a retirement-friendly location in West Virginia or Florida have been put on hold.

Crawford is among a few hundred employees at the court, the Public Defender Service, and the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency whose futures fell victim to a 1997 law that treated these workers as federal employees for retirement purposes. Only years later did they find out that up to 10 years of D.C. service did not count toward their federal retirement eligibility.

"These employees were involuntarily transferred to the federal government and came hoping for the best but got an employee's worst nightmare," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). "Nothing is more valuable to an employee than credit for time worked. Many of these employees would have retired years ago but found themselves locked in, hoping to reclaim time they had already given."

Norton has introduced legislation every session for years to correct what she calls "one of the clearest injustices, however unintended, to federal employees." Chances seem good that it will finally become law. It passed the House last month and is under consideration in the Senate.

Norton's office said that the Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, has no objections to the measure and that she expects it to pass the Senate.

"I'd [have] been gone a long time ago," said Richard Beckwith, a community supervision officer with the Offender Supervision Agency. He's 63 and has long planned a second career in anger-management counseling. He wants to build a house on family land in South Carolina. But all that will have to wait because of the lost retirement time.

"I love the job," he said, "but I'm ready to go and do other things."

The stories of two workers who started with the court system just two months apart reveal the almost cavalier injustice. Lisa VanDeVeer, director of the Office of Strategic Management, began working in September 1987. Bob Briggs, who joined the system that November, is a computer specialist.

VanDeVeer is credited with almost 22 years of service toward retirement. Briggs gets no credit for his time served from 1987 through 1997.

Briefly, this is what happened to Briggs, Crawford and many others.

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